Cities Lead the Way on Climate Action and Sustainability
Cities are truly on the frontlines of the climate crisis. We witness the impact of climate change every day because our residents are the ones fleeing fires and floods, and grappling with drought and heat. There are tragic consequences to inaction, and we, as city leaders, can and should respond with specific policies and programmes tailored to meet the needs of our population.
We are seeing cities around the world become laboratories for progress. They are demonstrating what is possible—from electrifying transportation systems and decarbonising buildings to cleaning their electric grid—because they control many of the key climate levers: building codes, urban planning, public transit, and in many cases electricity generation. Cities are modelling what a sustainable future looks like for not just other cities but also national governments, raising the bar for what’s possible politically, economically, and technologically. In truth, no one is doing more than cities on this issue.
Prioritising historically neglected communities is fundamental to ensuring that the long-term success of our work is felt by all Angelenos.
A Green New Deal for Los Angeles
In 2015, Los Angeles (LA) released its first-ever Sustainable City pLAn. This was accompanied by Executive Directive 7, which institutionalised sustainability within City government by establishing Chief Sustainability Officers in 18 key departments. Mayor Garcetti made a commitment that not only would the city report annually on its progress towards achieving the pLAn objectives, but every four years, the city would re-evaluate its goals and ambitions.
Just a few short years later, the Trump administration announced the US would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. In response, Mayor Garcetti began working with mayors across the country and the world—through Climate Mayors and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group—to show that cities are still committed to meaningfully address climate change. At the same time, we began working closely with local stakeholders and community leaders to develop a more expansive and ambitious roadmap to protect our environment, strengthen our economy, and build a more equitable future. In 2019, after a year of stakeholder engagement and quantitative analysis, LA’s Green New Deal was released—one of the first city sustainability plans in the world to be compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement.1
LA’s Green New Deal defines the city’s path to carbon neutrality and is deeply rooted in equity and resilience. The Five Zeros—zero carbon grid, zero carbon buildings, zero carbon transportation, zero waste, and zero wasted water—are backed by 445 initiatives that will not only get us to carbon neutrality but will prevent 1,650 premature deaths, save US$16 billion dollars, and create 400,000 jobs by at least 2050.
To succeed, departments across city government and Angelenos alike must work towards achieving the initiatives in the plan. In my role as Executive Officer for Sustainability in the LA Mayor's office, I help oversee the implementation of the Green New Deal and coordinate this effort both internally and externally.
Because climate change impacts are disproportionally felt by low-income people of colour, environmental justice is a cornerstone of LA’s Green New Deal. Prioritising historically neglected communities in the policies, plans, and investments we make is fundamental to ensuring that the long-term success of our work is felt by all Angelenos. For instance, we know that the urban heat island effect is worst in low-income neighbourhoods. Hence, in 2019, Mayor Garcetti launched the Cool Neighborhoods programme which combines a mix of strategies including planting trees, installing cool roofs and shaded bus shelters, and using cool street pavement in 13 neighbourhoods most vulnerable to heat. This is just one example of how we are making it a priority to implement proven programmes in the neighbourhoods that need them most.
Urban Sustainability in the Wake of the Pandemic
The pandemic opened the door to accelerate other sustainability initiatives.
LA’s Sustainability Efforts in Action
Under Mayor Garcetti’s leadership, the city has come a long way. In 2013, the city was powered by 40% coal and 20% renewable energy—and today, those numbers have been flipped to 16% coal and 43% renewables. We are the #1 Solar City in America for the eighth time in nine years, with over 35,000 solar rooftops dotting our skyline. After committing in 2019 to not repower three in-basin natural gas power plants, we undertook the groundbreaking LA100 study, the most comprehensive, globally-recognised study of an electric grid as complicated as LA’s, which proved that a 100% renewable energy grid is achievable, affordable, and reliable, and this emboldened us to accelerate by 10 years our 100% clean energy grid goals. We are now building more renewable energy projects than any other city in the US and helped bring online the largest renewable energy plant in the country. Because of LA’s commitment to clean energy, our greenhouse gas emissions have dropped a remarkable 36% from our 1990 baseline, and we are on track to achieve the Paris Climate Agreement by, if not before, 2050.
Fundamental to LA’s Green New Deal is environmental justice and equity. The first and worst effects of the climate crisis are felt by the most vulnerable populations, including communities of colour, those who are low-income, and those in historically polluted areas. Through the Mayor’s leadership, LA has worked to prioritise community-led programmes to address this inequity. With the city’s support, the Green Together Coalition and the Watts Rising Collaborative were awarded US$56 million in the State of California’s Transformative Climate Communities funding. This investment is going towards workforce development, affordable housing, green spaces, tree planting, clean mobility, and other community initiatives in the San Fernando Valley and South Los Angeles, bringing positive change to these neighbourhoods for generations to come.
In 2021, LA launched the first-ever Climate Emergency Mobilization Office to amplify the voices and needs of those most affected by climate change in developing policy and programme solutions. And in April 2022, the Mayor announced a US$21 million Climate Equity Fund that will support mitigation and adaptation programmes like cool roofs for seniors and green job training for under-represented workers. These are some examples of our work to connect community needs to city action.
While LA is in a transition with Mayor Garcetti at the end of his administration and an election in Autumn 2022, there are a number of significant policy measures underway that will fundamentally shift our greenhouse gas emissions and make this city healthier and more environmentally just. We are actively building decarbonisation policies, developing a policy to phase out oil drilling, creating equity strategies to implement our 100% clean energy grid plan (LA100), and embarking on a transformative water supply resilience and reliability initiative called Operation NEXT. Angelenos care deeply about ensuring a healthier, more sustainable, and prosperous LA, and the work of LA’s Green New Deal to initiate these policies has set this city up for success in achieving those goals.
Engaging Youth and the Broader Community
Learn how LA’s residents, recognising the fragility of their natural environment, stepped up in response, taking their leadership on this issue seriously.
Balancing Urban Sustainability and Development
The pursuit of both sustainability and development is not an either/or proposition. So many of our biggest challenges are highly interconnected. Treating each as a one-off project—trying to tackle public health one day, then creating good paying jobs the next, then turning to air quality issues when you get to it—creates an endless cycle that doesn’t adequately address any of them. Designing programmes that take a holistic approach, for example building more affordable housing close to public transit lines or repaving roads with cool pavement, addresses both the immediate and long-term needs of the community. We can walk and chew gum at the same time and that’s exactly the approach we’re taking here in LA.
So many of our biggest challenges are highly interconnected. Treating each as a one-off project creates an endless cycle that doesn’t adequately address any of them.
For other cities looking to pursue these aspirations, I won’t lie: it is a daunting and arduous task to develop a sustainability agenda that is an effective roadmap towards your end goals. The only way to ensure your plan is ambitious—yet achievable— is to work closely with internal and external stakeholders. Feedback is fundamental to striking the right balance while setting up programmes that the community actually wants. Without buy-in and support, even the most perfect plan will fail, so I would encourage any leader to listen to allies and critics alike, and work to build a coalition around an agenda that reflects community needs and environmental ambitions.
It is important to set up goals that are as concrete as possible with specific departments or offices responsible for reporting on the progress. By using clear metrics, measurements of success or challenge areas are made more easily identifiable to all involved. This also requires very careful consideration of how one defines success and establishes goals that push cities to aim high. Making this information publicly available in an easily accessible format is critical to holding everyone accountable. Empowering residents with the data is how sustainability plans become tangible climate action.
It is also important to set an agenda that will stretch beyond one’s comfort zone, not only because of the urgency of this issue but because what’s possible in this space is constantly evolving. What might seem impossible one day is entirely within reach the next, as this climate emergency pushes technology, and public and political support, towards new frontiers. As leaders, your agenda should reflect a vision for not just what is attainable, but what is needed to build a more sustainable and resilient city.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Victoria Simon is the Executive Officer for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office of Sustainability. She supports the implementation of LA’s Green New Deal, the City’s sustainability plan to aggressively address the climate crisis, with a specific focus on water, urban ecosystems, resilience, and waste. She also oversees the Mayor’s Youth Council for Climate Action. Prior to this role, she produced the podcast Political Climate and provided policy consulting for state and national political campaigns. She helped create New York City’s first sustainability plan while serving in Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, and has served as Chief of Staff and Director of Energy Policy at the New York Power Authority. She is also a member of Southern California Public Radio (KPCC) Regional Advisory Council.
- See “L.A.’s Green New Deal”, https://plan.lamayor.org/.